These are the well-known words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, found in his The Cost of Discipleship. The phrase is essentially a paraphrase of Christ’s statement in Matthew 16:24 (cf. Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23): “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (ESV). As a pastor of a new church in the suburbs of Minneapolis, I find the significance of these powerful words lost in the midst of a zealous pursuit of the American dream. This is not on an indictment on others, for we are all children of our times to one degree or another.
I was reading in The Story of Christianity about the final and great persecution of the still relatively young church of the 4th century prior to Constantine’s reign. Gonzalez recounts the events leading up to this persecution (and I quote in extenso):
After these events [the expulsion of Christian soldiers in Galerius’ army for fear they would not obey orders, many of them executed], Galerius seems to have been increasingly predisposed against Christians, and in 303 he finally convinced Diocletian to issue a new edict against Christians. Even then, the purpose was not to kill Christians, but to remove them from positions of responsibility within the [Roman] Empire. It was then ordered that Christians be removed from every government position, and that all Christian buildings and books be destroyed. At the beginning, there were no sterner measures. But soon the conflict grew worse, for there were many Christians who refused to turn over their sacred writings, and in such cases they were tortured and condemned to death.
Then fire broke out twice in the imperial palace. Galerius accused the Christians of having set it, seeking revenge for the destruction of their churches and the burning of their books. Some Christian writers of the period suggest that Galerius himself was responsible for the fires, which he had set in order to blame the Christians. Whatever the case may be, Diocletian’s fury was not slow in coming, and it was decreed that all Christians in the imperial court must offer sacrifice before the gods. Prisca and Valeria complied, but the Grand Chamberlain Dorotheus and several others suffered martyrdom. Throughout the Empire churches and sacred writings were being set to the torch, and there were areas where overzealous officials followed the emperor’s examples and put Christians to death. The only area where there seems to have been a slight respite was the territory under the rule of Constantius Chlorus, where persecution was limited to tearing down some church buildings—at least, this is what we are told by historian Eusebius, who wished to present Constantius in the best possible light.
The situation grew worse. There were disturbances in some areas, and Diocletian became convinced that Christians were conspiring against him. He then decreed, first, that all the leaders of the churches be arrested and, somewhat later, that all Christians must offer sacrifice to the gods.
Thus was unleashed the most cruel of all the persecutions that the ancient church had to endure. Following the example of Decius, efforts were made to encourage Christians to abandon their faith. Accustomed as they were to the relative ease of several decades, many Christians succumbed. The rest were tortured with refined cruelty, and eventually killed in a variety of ways. A number were able to hide, and some of these took the sacred books with them. There were even a few who crossed the border into Persia—thus seeming to confirm the worst suspicions as to their lack of loyalty (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity [Peabody, MA: Prince Press: 1994], 1:104, italics mine).
The phrase that made my heart melt was: “Accustomed as they were to the relative ease of several decades, many Christians succumbed.” I have often wondered how the American church in general would respond if persecution broke out. In particular, I have wondered how I would respond if my faith and loyalty to Christ was put to the test. If history is any indicator, it doesn’t look particularly good for us. As I think further on this, I become increasingly aware, indeed alarmed, that I far too often love my body more than Christ. Indicators such as the willingness to succumb to the flesh in eating, or drinking, or sleep, or leisure, or whatever—are indicators of this. If giving in to bodily appettites is a part of daily life now, upon what grounds should I think that any discomfort from hunger and weariness to affliction and torture—perhaps even unto death—would not make me recant my faith and betray my Savior? The thought troubles my soul deeply. It brings to mind Luke 22:60-62:
But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.  And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’  And he went out and wept bitterly” (ESV).
Only Luke records one haunting detail. Jesus, “who endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Hebrews 12:3), looked at Peter after he betrayed Him. It is no wonder that Peter went out and wept bitterly!
Let us, my American brothers and sisters in Christ, pray that though our flesh is weak, perhaps overrun with hedonism, we would “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:6). I hope that my Savior beholds me and says “Well done. Enter into the joy of your Lord” rather than witnessing my lapse of faith. Moreover, let us heed the apostolic command to put to death the deeds of the body, so we will live (Romans 8:13; cf. Colossians 3:5). Let us learn to love God more than life itself (cf. Psalm 63:3) so that if persecution comes, we may, by God’s grace, remain faithful to the end as so many have done before us, of whom this world is not worthy (Hebrews 11:38).
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him (James 1:12, ESV).